The main categories of sparkling wines include:
- Aromatic - such as wines made with Moscato or Malvasia
- Neutral - such as Glera
- High Acid - such as Erbaluce, Cortese, Verdicchio
- Tannic - such as Nebbiolo, Lambrusco
Italian spumantes are bottled with at least three atmospheres of pressure and most are bottled between five to six atmospheres of pressure.
There are three main methods to produce sparkling wines:
- Champagne method or metodo classico (the traditional method invented in Champagne region of France)
- Tank Method aka Martinotti, the Italian who invented the method
- Autoclave aka Asti method, which is the method most commonly used to produce Moscato d'Asti
Carlo Gancia is considered the “Father of Italian Sparkling wine” due to his documentation and partnership with Conte Carlo Giorgio Vistarino in 1865 in the Oltrepo Pavese region of Lombardy. Antonio Carpene is considered the “Father of Prosecco” when he was the first the bottle Prosecco in 1868. The pioneers would have traveled to Champagne to observe the traditional method and then applied it back home to native Italian varietals.
The development of larger production and less expensive sparkling wines arrived with innovations in France in 1858 of the Maumene method. In 1895, Martinotti patented his version using wooden tanks and Moscato. In 1907, the Charmat method was developed using stainless steel tanks. The benefits of these innovations are that the sparkling wine retains the flavors of the base wine with varietal aromas and flavors. These fruity wines only require a short time on the lees as the second fermentation is in tank. For this reason, these wines do not exhibit the bread, yeast characteristics that develop from autolysis that occurs in the traditional method.
The Prosecco DOC in NE Italy covers about 24,000 hectares of vineyards, which is smaller than the 33,000 hectares of vineyards in Champagne. However, Italy produces more than two times as many bottles of Prosecco than the French produce in Champagne. This is explained by the tank fermentation method and the higher yields.
The Glera grapes that are harvested to produce Prosecco come from numerous DOCs, which are typically flat lands with sandy soils. There are more than 550 communes that farm the vast majority of Glera. Prosecco Treviso is a DOC with 95 communes.
The Prosecco DOCGs are distinguished with hillside vineyards. Asolo DOCG, Conegliano, Valdobbiadene, and the 43 Rive (hillside crus, vintage dated) sit at the top of the quality pyramid because the vineyards are more difficult to farm and the DOCG requires lower yields.
The Cartizze Prosecco is sourced from a single cru with south facing, steep slopes that are very difficult to harvest. Wines from Cartizze vineyards are grown on only 107 hectares. As a result, prices for Cartizze Prosecco approach those of Champagne.
Col Fondo Prosecco is a method that ages the wine sui leviti (on the lees). The wine is refermented in bottle, so there isn’t a secondary fermentation in tank. These wines tend to be unfiltered and express sourdough characteristics and volatile acids.
The Asti method has only one fermentation. Moscato d’Asti is typically 4.5-6.5 ABV, bottled at less than 2.5 atmospheres and is frizzante. It’s often bottled with a standard cork or stelvin (screwcap).
Asti Spumante is bottled at >6% ABV with 4.5-5 atmospheres of pressure. Extra Dry versions are around 12 grams/Liter residual sugar. The Dolce versions can have 50+ grams/Liter residual sugar. These wines are finished with wired corks and can be chaptalized.
The wines of Franciacorta in Lombardy are remarkable in that the DOCG has instituted the strictest production codes of any classic method production area. The modern sparkling wines of Franciacorta date from the 1950’s. In 1967 the region was recognized as a DOC. In the 1980’s, the producers in the region began to favor Chardonnay over Pinot Bianco. In 1995, when the DOCG was awarded, 80% of the grapes in the region are Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Nero, and 5% Pinot Bianco with a small amount of Erbamat planted as insurance against climate change due to its high acid and late ripening qualities.
Key producers in the region include Belucci (one of the first in 1950’s), Ca del Bosco, and Barone Pizzini.
There are several styles of sparkling wine produced in the region including:
- Franciacorta - generally a minimum of 18 months aging
- Franciacorta Rose - a minimum of 24 months aging
- Franciacorta Saten - a minimum of 24 months aging with <6 atmospheres of pressure, which makes it more “silken” and it is a blanc de blancs (white grape wine)
- Franciacorta Millesimato - minimum of 30 months aging
- Franciacorta Riserva - minimum of 60 months aging
Vineyards in this northeast region of Italy are often planted at altitudes of up to 800 meters above sea level. Ferrari is a leader in the region who traveled to France and brought home the traditional method. The region produces NV Brut (aged 15 months), Vintage (aged 24 months), and Riserva (aged 36 months). The wines in Trento DOC are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Bianco.
Alta Langa DOC
This sparkling wine region was only recognized as a DOC in 2011 due to a handful of producers who convened in the 1990’s to match the growing success of Franciacorta. Many of these producers removed Dolcetto grapes in the Piemonte region and planted Pinot Nero and Chardonnay. Today, the wines are vintage dated and contain at least 90% Pinot Nero and Chardonnay. A handful of producers in Piemonte are also producing small amounts of sparkling wines made from Nebbiolo, Erbaluce, and other regional varietals.
This region is named for the “other side of the Po river from Pavia”. The region is historically important as the home of Conte Carlo Giorgio Vistarino who partnered with Carlo Gancia to create some of the earliest sparkling wines in Italy. The focus is now on Pinot Nero, using a minimum of 70% in the blend. The non-vintage wines age for at least 15 months and the vintage wines age for a minimum of 24 months.
The Lambrusco family of grapes are considered some of the oldest native grape varieties in the world and most closely related to wild vines that predate vitis vinifera. When hunter gatherers saw bright berries on Lambrusco-like vines, they would select and protect those vines and propagate them. This led to a period of protoviticulture and later true viticulture. Domestic vinifera are now distinguished with elongated pips and full grape bunches.
There are four main Lambrusco grapes:
- Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro is only grown on hillsides, likes clay soils and is lower in acid which makes it ideal for dolce style wines.
- Lambrusco di Sorbara is the palest in color, likes sandy soils and is the most fragrant. Curiously, this grape is dioescious, which means it’s not self-polinating. As a result, Lambrusco Salamino is often planted nearby to pollinate the Sorbara.
- Lambrusco Salamino is so named because the grape bunches look like a salami. This is the most abundantly planted grape in the area and has qualities of both the Sorbara and Grasparossa di Castelvetro.
- Lambrusco Maestri has the most tutti frutti or bubble gum expression and is high yielding.
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